It’s 16 years since the then Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly painted the image of ‘tiptoeing’ back to the Church.
“It would be good if we recognised the new religions of sex and drink and shopping for what they are and tiptoed back to the Churches,” she told the Céifin conference in 2004.
New research carried out by Queen’s University Belfast would seem to indicate that the coronavirus pandemic is witnessing more than a little bit of openness to faith from what we loosely call the lapsed or unchurched.
Priests report people who don’t regularly attend Mass tuning in to watch online liturgies via the parish webcam or social media.
Fear around the pandemic is probably a factor, but a more interesting factor to consider is to what extent the online participation is reflective of a felt need to be part of a community.
It’s been fascinating in Eastertide to read the Acts of the Apostles and witness the growth of the early Church. It’s also daunting since it was so often the goodness of the first followers of Jesus that attracted more and more people to their radical way of living the Gospel.
Holy Communion and Confirmation ceremonies…can be grace-filled moments to invite people to return”
That is our challenge too, and as parishes start to get back to public Masses we will have to stop and ask what we have learnt from ministry during the pandemic. What of those who are not regular attendees, but have been taking comfort and solace from participating online? They are now part of our virtual community, how do we incorporate them in to the physical community? As the pandemic fades, will the new found interest in faith fade with it?
The answer is that it will fade unless we are proactive in inviting people to participate more fully in the life of the local parish. As weekday and Sunday public Masses begin in more and more parishes the webcam will continue to be a feature for those who will continue to cocoon. It might be an idea for priests to make a point of issuing the invitation online to those watching the webcam to come to a physically distanced Mass. The Church’s roadmap envisages parishes being split by townland, street or housing estate and attending Mass accordingly with one’s neighbours. What about a leafleting campaign to make this clear and a special invitation to those who have maybe been away for a while?
It’s very interesting that when people are asked why they do not volunteer in a local club or organisation, they often respond that they were never asked.
When Holy Communion and Confirmation ceremonies do start to take place in September, these can also be grace-filled moments to invite people to consider coming back.
This pandemic has underlined the importance of both community and solidarity. These were words that were at the heart of the growth of the early Church. If both community and solidarity are at the heart of our parishes these too will grow and people – tiptoeing or otherwise – will see the message of the Gospel as relevant to their lives.